This past weekend, I sat through a whole bunch of movies and short films as part of the HorrorHound Weekend in Cincinnati. Here are my thoughts on the ones that I managed to catch.
“Dark Star” is an acclaimed documentary about H.R. Giger that just made it over to North America (I believe this was the US premiere). It is supremely well shot and scored, and provides a great showcase of his body of work. Unfortunately, Giger isn’t quite as cogent as he could be for the interview segments, as it was completed just before his death. I thought that this was one of the best overall features at the festival, and is worth giving a watch if you are interested in his dark bio-tech aesthetic, or if you are just a fan of the “Alien” franchise and want to know more about the visual designs.
Fritz The Nite Owl: Re-Animator
I have already written about “Re-Animator,” and there isn’t really anything new to add. Fritz adds a nice flair of actor/director trivia in his host segments, and the team clearly had a blast splicing in his head over David Gale’s.
This was the first short I managed to catch at the festival. Basically, it is about a Babysitter trying to scare a child with a bedtime story, after which the story comes to life. The concept of a “tickle monster” troll was interesting enough, but the child acting was just distractingly atrocious. That is one of those things that I just particularly can’t stomach in films though, so I might be a bit negatively biased there. I liked the monster design, but I thought it got a bit too much exposure.
Apparently, this is a spinoff from the movie “Found,” which I haven’t seen. Still, it is meant to stand on its own as an homage to classic exploitation movies, going so far as to include a concocted fake trailer at the beginning (“Wolf Baby”, which I honestly would rather have seen). In the story of “Found,” “Headless” is mentioned as the most horrifying and brutal movie of all time, and was ultimately banned across the board. This attempt to create that fictitious movie was not quite on point if you ask me. It is supposed to be filmed and set in 1978, but at no point does that seem genuinely believable. The film doesn’t look like an old exploitation movie in the shots or the film quality, outside of a handful of welcome homages to films like “Maniac” and the classic-style opening trailer. There just wasn’t enough attention to detail or effort put into the style for me to buy it for what it was supposed to be. It looks like a movie filmed in someone’s back yard in 2014 rather than a movie filmed in someone’s back yard in 1978, and that is a very big difference. That said, the effects are very well done, and there is plenty of gore to go around. Overall, though, I thought it was dull and highly repetitive, which arguably makes it a little too faithful to the exploitation genre. Even the excellent lead performance wasn’t enough to keep me invested into the climax.
“Killing Poe” is another film that I really liked out of the lineup, in what was a sneak peek showing. Essentially, it is an Edgar Allan Poe plot applied to a stoner comedy, if you can imagine such a thing. A group of students wind up enrolled in a class on Poe taught by an abrasive and eccentric professor, who they ultimately plot to frighten into changing his dastardly ways. The plan goes awry, leading to the professor’s death and some heavy drama for the students. My only big issue with the story is that it gets a little bogged-down in the guilt-driven drama before a really fantastic conclusion. The performances (particularly Rick Plastina as the professor) are spectacular, and the comedic writing throughout is well above par for your typical stoner comedy. I recommend giving this one a watch when it becomes available.
“Howl of a Good Time” has an interesting concept behind it (a child sneaking into an R-movie, and discovering a horrible secret), but I still feel a bit mixed about the execution. It is hard to get into without delving into spoilers, and the film definitely relies on the twist, but there is cooler idea behind the film than what ultimately shows up on screen. I did like the child actor in this one, which is a rarity, and I also appreciated that the reveals are made gradually. I wish I could watch it again, because I would like to get a second glance at the monster effects: my first impression was that they looked a bit off, but again, I’d love to get another pass on them. If you come across it, this is a short worth watching.
“A Way Out” isn’t really a horror short, unless you are a little creative with the boundaries of the genre. It is a suspenseful crime drama that features a really good performance from character actor Robert Costanzo, who plays an aging hitman looking for a way out of the world of crime. The entire story takes place inside a car (a damn nice looking one at that), providing an ideal bottle setting for a short. I was a little surprised that it didn’t win the prize for Best Short, because its quality really stood head and shoulders over the rest of the field of shorts (even “Painkiller” in my opinion, which won). This a spectacular little short from top to bottom, and is worth devoting some time to.
“The Other Side” is a zombie movie with high aspirations and an interesting concept. Unfortunately, it has some absolutely fatal flaws. The ensemble of characters includes far too many plot threads, enough so that the story is drug down by them (and one gets dropped for easily half of the feature’s run time). There is also a whole lot of wandering around in the woods without a specific aim or destination, which is really dull and monotonous to watch after a while. There is at least one gratingly awful performance, and a lead character who is pretty much impossible to empathize with. There is a lot of emphasis on the human drama side of the story, which is just not written or acted well enough to carry the movie. That is all really a shame, because there is a perspective on the zombie feature in here that is really interesting and commendable. That said, it all falls apart if you actually put much thought into it, but some credit has to be given to trying new things with a tired genre.
This was the worst short I saw at the festival by a long shot. The best way I can describe it is as an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation of “Weekend at Bernie’s,” but without any elements of humor (“Weekend at Bernie’s 2?”). Nearly the entire story is told through awful voiceover in the mind of an unreliable narrator, who is desperately trying to revive his deceased girlfriend. Despite the heavy-handed melodramatic tone, there are a few odd moments of attempted humor (a guy offers to buy the corpse for $50, unprompted). The short just didn’t seem focused well enough, though there was certainly some potential hidden in it.
“Bloodsucking Bastards” was the highlight of the festival, and the movie I was most looking forward to going into it. Most have described it as “Office Space” meets “Shaun of the Dead,” but I don’t think that even quite nails it. The corporate satire is brutal, and the comedic dialogue is all expertly written and performed. Both “Office Space” and “Shaun of the Dead” are relatively dry in their humor, and “dry” is the last thing you can describe “Bloodsucking Bastards” as. It is a sneer and a sigh, with a ‘biting’ tone clearly pulled from begrudging experience in the corporate world. The gore is almost an afterthought, but it certainly isn’t half-assed: the excessive blood explosions are consistently comedic in their own right, giving the genre a justified elbow to the ribs. “Bloodsucking Bastards” is a little more rebellious and contentious in spirit than most horror comedies, which are typically born out of affection for the horror genre. This is a creature born of hate for and disenfranchisement with corporatism: and that gives it teeth. It is thoroughly enjoyable, to say the least.
“Old 37” has a very cool concept behind it: two brothers operate a fake ambulance, which they use to intercept 9-1-1 calls and abduct injured people for their nefarious purposes. Kane Hodder, best known as most of the later incarnations of Jason in the “Friday the 13th” franchise, plays one of the brothers, and brings his trademark menace to the role. There are some really solid shots throughout the movie, and the production design is thoroughly impressive. That said, there are some pretty serious issues with the movie. The story primarily focuses on some of the least likeable teenagers that a screenplay could possibly cook up: to the point that they don’t seem realistically human (particularly the women). Even characters that the audience members are supposed to be sympathetic to are beyond the scope of reality: the high school protagonist insists that she get a boob job half-way through the movie, to which there is no significant objection or monetary discussion. That seems particularly unbelievable for a rural, single-parent household. The love interest is even revealed to be a hit-and-run murderer, which quickly axes his likability. A vast majority of the film is spent with these teenager characters, which makes these character/writing issues stand out significantly. Worse, there isn’t a whole lot of time spent with the brothers who operate the “Old 37” ambulance. There are a number of flashbacks that set up a little bit of background for them, but not much outside of that. Honestly, their dynamic was far more interesting than what the teenagers were doing, and I wanted to see more of their emergency responding in action, if for no other reason than to at least get some time away from the high school drama.
The thing that stood out most to me about “Old 37” was the Alan Smithee directing credit, which is almost always a bad sign for a feature. I asked about it in the post-film Q+A (to some visible dismay). Apparently, as I kind of suspected, there was an irreconcilable difference in vision between the director and the rest of the team. The director was described as being about “art, art, art”, and the rest of the team favored “horror, horror, horror” and “blood, blood, blood.” The original director left before post-production, leaving that work in other hands.
For an Alan Smithee’d movie, “Old 37” isn’t too bad. There are some good performances, and there is a lot to like about the cinematography, production design, and the story concept. It is better than a lot of stuff you will see out there these days in the world of horror, but I still found it a bit lacking overall.
“Painkiller” presents yet another very cool concept for a short. The story follows a couple of young, arguably obsessed scientists determined to create a more effective type of painkiller: a lab-created symbiotic organism. The organism is designed to feed off of pain (?), and then release endorphins into the body as a byproduct. When they finally test it, this proves to create a side-effect of intense masochism, because the positive byproduct is too strong. It is all pretty interesting until you put a little thought into it, at which point nothing makes sense. The scientists are supposedly experts, but go ahead with an experimental trial that could not be reversed, used in an official research capacity, or was even relevant for the purpose of the research (they tested it on a person not in chronic pain)? The mistakes they make are just impossible to fathom, and take a lot of suspension to believe. The ending is also disappointing, and could have gone in a much more intriguing direction. Still, it was a good short and an interesting watch.
This was one of the more fascinating experiences of the festival. Not because of the movie itself, which was impossibly boring, offensive, vapid, and repetitive, but because the writer/director Bill Zebub was in attendance. I had seen one of his other films, “Antfarm Dickhole,” and knew what I was in for with this flick. However, most of the rest of the audience did not, and watching them exasperatedly trickle out of the theater was a real delight. A lot of people left before the 15 minute rambling Q+A was finished (which was held before the movie, because Bill Zebub rightfully predicted that most people would leave). Bill Zebub basically sets the standard for film-making incompetence, but seems to think he makes up for it with shock value. Outside of awful attempts at humor, some of the least convincing gore effects you will ever see, and acting that is beyond wooden, there is just nothing happening here. No joke, I think upwards of 70% of this movie was in slow motion. It was nearly impossible to watch: not because of the shock value, but because the film is “slow” in the sense of both the effects and the pacing.
What made the experience fascinating to me was the way Bill Zebub seemed to relish in it all. Somehow, having people walk out on him just inflated his ego all the more, and added gasoline to his fire. I’m not sure if this is all some kind of joke for him, or if he is genuinely just deluded on the level of Tommy Wiseau. Either way, it doesn’t change how unwatchable his films are. From what I have seen, nothing he has done is worth the time to sit through, and this one isn’t an exception.